Common Milkweed: Uses and Natural Remedies

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Seney National Wildlife Refuge

Learn About Milkweed—an Important Native Plant!

George and Becky Lohmiller
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Common milkweed has a long history as a natural remedy—and has many other uses, too! Plus, milkweed is the food of our beautiful monarch butterflies. Learn about this surprisingly useful native plant.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) is the best known of the 100 or so milkweed species native to North America. The name "common" fits the plant well because when not in bloom, it goes pretty much unnoticed, growing humbly along roadsides, in fields, and in wastelands.

Natural Remedies with Milkweed

Once upon a time, milkweed was commonly used in a number of natural remedies:

  • Native Americans taught early European settlers how to properly cook milkweed so that it could be safely eaten. (See note below.)
  • The milky white sap was applied topically to remove warts, and the roots were chewed to cure dysentery.
  • Infusions of the roots and leaves were taken to suppress coughs and used to treat typhus fever and asthma.

Note: Today, experienced foragers may enjoy eating young milkweed sprouts, which resemble asparagus, but ONLY if they are properly identified (there are poisonous lookalikes, such as dogbane) and properly prepared (boiled). Some common milkweed plants (A. syriaca) are mild-tasting, while others are bitter (in which case, avoid entirely or boil in several changes of water). If you are new to foraging, have an expert help you identify, gather, and prepare the plant properly before eating. As with any herb, take only a small amount at first, to be sure that you don't have an adverse reaction.

Find out about other helpful natural remedies.

Caution: Do not get milkweed sap in your eyes (such as rubbing your eyes after touching the sap); wash your hands thoroughly after handling the plant. Also, some people may develop an allergic reaction when the sap touches the skin.

Milkweed flowers. Photo by Lmmahood/Wikimedia Commons.
Milkweed flowers. Photo by Lmmahood/Wikimedia Commons.

Is Milkweed Poisonous?

Beneath its dull, gray-green exterior, milkweed is slightly toxic.

  • Inside the plant is a sticky white sap that contains a mild poison; its bitter taste warns away many of the animals and insects that try to eat its tender leaves—including humans.
  • Certain insects, including monarch butterfly caterpillars, are immune to the toxin. By feeding almost exclusively on milkweed leaves, they are able to accumulate enough of the poison in their bodies to make them distasteful to predators which means that milkweed is a great plant for butterflies.

The nectar in all milkweed flowers provides valuable food for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. Butterflies don't only need nectar, but also need food at the caterpillar stage. The leaves of milkweed plants (Asclepias spp.) are the ONLY food that monarch caterpillars can eat! And monarch butterflies need milkweed to lay their eggs. With shifting land management practices and pesticide use, we have lost much milkweed from the landscape. This has led to a 90% decline in the number of eastern monarchs in a just single decade.

Monarch caterpillar on milkweed

Fun Facts About Common Milkweed

  • The stems' tough, stringy fibers were twisted into strong twine and rope, or woven into coarse fabric.
  • Inside milkweed's rough seed pods is another wonderful surprise: The fluffy white floss, attached to milkweed's flat brown seeds, could be used to stuff pillows, mattresses, and quilts, and was carried as tinder to start fires.

milkweed-seed-pod-uses.jpg

  • During World War II, the regular material used to stuff life jackets was in short supply, so milkweed floss was called for as a substitute—it is about six times more buoyant than cork!
  • Over the years, researchers have investigated growing milkweed for paper-making, textiles, and lubricants, and as a substitute for fossil fuels and rubber. Although these experiments were found economically unfeasible at the time, perhaps they should be revisited, given the rising costs of fuel and other materials.
  • In current research, a chemical extracted from the seed is being tested as a pesticide for nematodes.

We doubt if this surprisingly useful plant will run out of surprises anytime soon! Common milkweed seeds grow well in just average soil. Scratch milkweed seeds directly into the soil in the fall. The following summer, seedlings will emerge.

See our full list of plants that attract butterflies.

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Comments

Pat (not verified)

2 months 3 weeks ago

I'm wondering where to buy "pure" milkweed seeds. After reading the comment below about the seeds not being organic and free from pesticides I have to ask where can I buy some now?I don't live in the country (although I'd like to! I married such a city boy!) nor do I know anyone who does.
Thank you!

Chris Maryinuk (not verified)

1 year 2 months ago

I read your article and unfortunately it is derived from incorrect information as common milkweed, even eaten raw, is not bitter or toxic. The information you received was passed down from a misidentified dogbane by Euell Gibbons back in 1962 and apparently that information “stuck”.

The Editors

1 year 2 months ago

In reply to by Chris Maryinuk (not verified)

Thank you for your feedback! All readily available sources that we could find claim that milkweed is indeed mildly toxic to livestock and humans due to the presence of cardenolides. Here are a few:

However, if you could provide a link to sources stating otherwise, we would be happy to read more about it!

C. Russell (not verified)

1 year 5 months ago

South Central Indiana: I was interested in growing milkweed in our backyard, which borders a local farmer's field. When I mentioned the idea to our neighbor (to promote monarch butterflies), he informed me that the plant is deadly poisonous to cattle, and he would prefer that I NOT plant any, since it could easily spread to his field and be eaten by his cattle! (Just passing along the information in the interest of keeping peaceful relations with neighbors who raise cattle!) Thank you for the article - I hope others can grow milkweed & find it useful.

Pat (not verified)

1 year 5 months ago

The common milkweed plant is the easiest to grow. Some of the others varieties I have tried from nurseries do not survive. Monarchs love milkweed and we are always delighted to see the caterpillars. We are always happy to share the seed pods in the fall, too.